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Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Recognizing the signs, early intervention

April is Autism Awareness Month, and this is an excellent opportunity to focus on increasing understanding and acceptance of people with autism. Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disorder in the United States.

Autism is a spectrum of closely related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) appear in infancy and early childhood.

The signs and symptoms of autism vary widely, as do its effects. Some children with autism have only mild impairments, while others have more obstacles to overcome. However, every child on the autism spectrum has difficulties in the following three areas:

• Communicating verbally and nonverbally. Relating to others and the world around them.

• Thinking and behaving flexibly.

According to the Center for Disease Control, one in 44 children has been identified with ASD. The rates of autism have been increasing over the years due to better diagnostic techniques, and a better understanding of all of the various forms autism can present. The research is clear: The earlier a child is diagnosed with autism and receives intervention services, the better their outcome.

Because of COVID-19, some children were not seeing their pediatrician for wellbaby checkups. Monitoring milestones and early development are one of the best ways to detect the first signs of autism. Autism can be accurately diagnosed as young as 24 months, so it is critical that pediatricians screen toddlers and have their early milestones monitored.

What are the signs or symptoms that parents should be concerned about specific to autism?

(*abbreviated list)

• No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by six months.

• No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by nine months.

• No babbling by 12 months.

• No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months.

• No words by 16 months.

• Not responding to their name.

• No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months.

• Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age.

What can a parent do if they are concerned that their child might have autism?

If you are concerned about your child’s development, speak up and share your concerns with their pediatrician. Do not take a “wait and see” approach. Research shows that if a mother suspects her child has some type of delay, she tends to be correct, so trust your instincts! You have the right to have your child evaluated to determine if they qualify for early intervention services before the age of 3. Parents can begin this process by calling Early Steps of Louisiana at (318) 226-8038.

Therapy Makes a Difference

No cure exists for autism, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. The goal of treatment is to maximize your child’s ability to function by reducing ASD symptoms and supporting development and learning. Early intervention during preschool can help your child learn critical social, communication, functional and behavioral skills.

Treatment options may include:

• Behavior and communication therapies. Some programs focus on reducing problem behaviors and teaching new skills. Other programs teach children how to act in social situations or communicate better with others. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) can help children learn new skills and generalize these skills to multiple situations through a reward-based motivation system.

• Educational therapies. Children with ASD often respond well to highly structured educational programs that include various activities to improve social skills, communication and behavior.

• Family therapies. Parents and other family members can learn how to play and interact with their children to promote social interaction skills, manage problem behaviors and teach daily living skills and communication.

• Medications. No medication can improve the core signs of ASD, but specific medications can help control symptoms. For example, certain medications may be prescribed if your child is hyperactive; antipsychotic drugs are sometimes used to treat severe behavioral problems, and antidepressants may be prescribed for anxiety. Keep all health-care providers updated on any medications or supplements your child is taking.

Planning for the future

Children with autism spectrum disorder typically continue to learn and compensate for problems throughout life, but most will continue to require some level of support. Raising a child with autism spectrum disorder can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining. It is important to use all resources available to you.

• Find a team of trusted professionals.

• Keep records of visits with service providers.

• Learn about the disorder.

• Take time for yourself and other family members.

• Seek out other families of children with autism spectrum disorder.

While every child is different and everyone develops at their own pace, there are certain critical milestones that should be achieved by a certain age. If a child is behind in their development, while it may not mean they have autism, they would likely benefit from enrollment in an intervention program to help them catch up. Please talk to your pediatrician if you are concerned about your child’s development.

Michelle Yetman Ph.D., clinical psychologist, clinical associate professor, LSU Health Shreveport. Mike McGill, MCD,CCC-SLP, assistant director of children’s center, speech-language pathologist, clinical assistant professor, LSU Health Shreveport.

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